Policies and Practices of Teachers’ Agency to Support Migrant Students in Scotland

Author: Dr Cecilia Gialdini

In recent years, the school population has undergone significant shifts, mirroring the evolving demographics of societies worldwide. Teachers play a crucial role in integrating migrant students into education (Pantić and Florian, 2015; Manninen et al., 2022). However, translating inclusive education policies into tangible, effective practices remains complex and dynamic, necessitating a nuanced comprehension of the intricate dynamics within school communities (Pantić, et al, 2022; Tarnanen, TEAMS Blog). This study aims to connect the dots between policies and practices in teachers’ collaboration around support for migrant students. While contexts matter for the formation and dynamics of collaborative relationships and networks in schools, which contexts matter and how, however, often remains unestablished. Our study examines collaboration among teachers in three different high schools in one of Scotland’s major cities s, focusing primarily on using specialists and their alignment with the guidelines in policy documents. Using a triangulation of mixed-methods social network analysis (MMSNA) and thematic policy analysis, three actors in migrant education: 1) teachers, 2) students, and 3) school culture and policies.

The MMSNA data has been collected over three years through social network surveys, reflective logs for teachers (TRAC) (Pantić, 2021), student engagement surveys, ethnographic observations, and interviews with school staff and students (Pantić et al., 2024). Additional data on policy has been collected at a national, municipal, and school level in the three schools involved in the project for 30 policy documents. The data was collected in three schools in a large city in Scotland, specifically:

– One school in a very diverse and deprived area (Juniper)
– One school in a very diverse in a mixed area (Beech)
– One school that received migrant students within a relatively affluent neighbourhood (Rowan)


Teacher’s Relational Agency

Across the three diverse schools analysed – Juniper, Beech, and Rowan – educators exhibited remarkable levels of relational agency. This agency was manifest in its adept mobilisation of knowledge derived from diverse sources within and beyond the immediate school milieu to bolster support structures for migrant students. Despite budgetary constraints and resource limitations, teachers displayed a resolute commitment to collaboration, often devising innovative solutions tailored to the unique needs of their student cohorts. Notably, their interactions with EAL (English as an Additional Language) teachers emerged as a central facet of this collaborative endeavour, underscoring the pivotal role of specialist support in facilitating the academic and socio-emotional integration of migrant students.

Furthermore, the study revealed intriguing insights into the nuanced patterns of teacher collaboration across the three schools. While overarching policies emphasise the imperative of integration and collaborative endeavours, translating these directives into actionable strategies varied significantly across distinct school contexts. For instance, Beech School tended to rely less on external support from EAL teachers. In contrast, Juniper and Rowan exhibited a greater propensity to leverage the expertise of EAL specialists. This approach divergence underscores teachers’ inherent flexibility and adaptability in navigating complex support structures amidst evolving policy frameworks and resource constraints. Collaboration within the principles of inclusive education is perceived as an important resource to support all students, whether migrant or not. Ideally, this collaboration would entail all staff supporting all students under the guidance of EAL teachers without delegating the responsibility of directly dealing with students solely to the EAL teachers (Pantić et al., 2024).

Students’ Engagement

While students across all three schools strongly emphasised academic learning values, engagement with a sense of belonging was low across migrant and non-migrant student cohorts. These findings are particularly intriguing, especially when considered alongside a policy analysis that has revealed the absence of students’ voices and perspectives in both school and municipal policy documents. While the educational literature highlights a positive correlation between academic success, socialisation, and a sense of belonging, this aspect does not appear to be adequately addressed in guidelines on inclusive education for migrant students in Scotland, which often prioritise access to the curriculum. School Culture

While national and council-level policies articulate a steadfast commitment to values of diversity and inclusivity, translating these overarching principles into tangible practices varied significantly across disparate school contexts. Some initiatives have been perceived by students as valuable, such as Beech’s “Decolonising the Curriculum” which included workshops and one-on-one support for teachers and students carried out by Intercultural Youth Scotland, a charity that promotes the well-being and empowerment of young people from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. These sessions focus on matters regarding anti-racism and aim to align as closely as possible with the national curriculum. O Another intervention aimed at making migrant students more comfortable in the school environment is the possibility of taking exams in their mother tongue. This option is available for Chinese and Italian students in Juniper. Overall, though, school policies tend to focus disproportionally on language acquisition and access to the curriculum, mirroring national and municipal guidelines.

So what now?

The findings about how EAL educators are often sought for direct support to students rather than as sources for knowledge development by all teachers indicate that migrant integration is still an additional demand that teachers are not equipped for. Given the ongoing migration trends, national and council-level policymakers could seek to treat diversity as a standard feature of schools today and reshape the support system.

Given the limited resources, the role of EAL could be rethought as knowledge development support for class teachers, possibly through training opportunities that consider ways of incorporating diversity as a resource for all students, e.g., in different subjects. Some initiatives to decolonise the curriculum could be a step in the right direction to add whole-school improvement approaches that embrace diversity to the common, removal of language barriers or anti-bullying policies.

For what concerns students, while their voices are critical in the context of increasingly diverse student populations, the findings show that a low sense of belonging in student data aligns with the lack of presence of students’ agency and participation in the policies. Considering that pupils, migrants and not, are the primary beneficiaries of these policies, their absence in guidelines is telling. Students’ activities are mainly derived from top-down decisions. Inclusion of students in the decision-making process within schools and articulation of their agency in official policies could be a possible course of action to boost the sense of belonging to the schools and treat diversity as a resource for all rather than a problem.

Moreover, the findings consistently reveal a widespread perception of integration equating to language acquisition within policies and school culture. However, this fails to capture the social, cultural, economic and religious determinants that characterise migration, which should be considered when planning integration strategies in and out of schools. Shortcomings of this policy were evident in practice: for instance, pairing students based solely on language proficiency, as identified in student interviews, posed challenges in buddy programs at Beech and Juniper schools. This approach restricts socialisation to a single shared element among students, overlooking other crucial aspects of inclusion, such as meaningful peer relationships linked to academic success. It reinforces a negative conceptualisation of migrant students as deficient in certain areas (e.g., language proficiency, access to the curriculum), rather than recognising them as valuable assets to the school community, contrary to the principles upheld by policies at all levels.

Future policies should, therefore, adopt a more holistic approach to assess the genuine needs of migrant students and include their voices in the decision-making process regarding guidelines and initiatives, as they will ultimately be the beneficiaries or bear the consequences of these choices. To align with the goal of reviewing support in the UK or Scotland and to provide more concrete suggestions for enhancing current support systems, ideally through discussions with relevant authorities, the following recommendations can be considered:

Enhancing EAL Support for Teachers:

  • Reevaluate the role of EAL support to provide comprehensive knowledge development assistance for classroom educators, rather than one-on-one support to single students.
  • Include more interventions focuses to increase the sense of belonging and socialisation in guidelines for EAL students, moving past a sole focus on academic learning.

Empowering Student Voices:

  • Foster a sense of belonging among students by actively engaging them in the decision-making process within schools: e.g. give them the possibility to evaluate the intervention and propose improvements. These consultations could be carried out with internal surveys.
  • Ensure inclusive representation of students, encompassing both migrant and non-migrant populations, in policy formulation discussions at municipal and national level.



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